Alas, it was perhaps optimistic to ever imagine that the fighting between Syria’s Alawite regime and the Sunni-led rebellion would remain within the country’s borders. Syria is at once the pivot and a mirror of the Fertile Crescent, and its sectarian and ethnic fissures reproduce themselves in neighboring Arab states. As an oddly passive President Obama ponders what he might do in Syria — and whether to do anything at all — he should be less preoccupied with red lines of his own making than with the blurring of the lines drawn in Arab sands decades ago.
On the map, Tripoli, on the Mediterranean Sea, lies within the borders of Lebanon and is the country’s second-largest city. But Tripoli, staunchly Sunni, with an Alawite minority, has always been within the orbit of the Syrian city of Homs. So it is no mystery that a deadly conflict now rages in Tripoli between Sunni and Alawite neighborhoods, rendering the place ungovernable. Sunni jihadists and preachers see the Syrian struggle as their own, an opportunity to evict the Alawites from their midst and to restore Sunni primacy.
Look to Iraq, on Syria’s eastern border, for the region’s quintessential artificial entity. Today, the government in Baghdad, Shiite-led for the first time in a millennium, sides with the Alawite dictatorship in Damascus. But in western Iraq, the Sunni strongholds of Anbar province and Mosul have been stirred up by the Syrian rebellion. The same tribes straddle the border between the two countries. Smugglers and traders, and now Sunni warriors, pay that border no heed.
The American war upended the order of things in Iraq; the Sunni minority lost out to the Shiites and bristled under that change of fortunes. The Syrian rebellion, a Sunni upheaval against an Alawite minority, has been a boon to the Sunnis of Iraq. The Sunnis have bottomless grievances against the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. To them, Maliki, who spent a quarter-century exiled in Syria and Iran, is an agent of the Iranian theocracy. So even though the regime in Syria did its best to subvert the new order in Baghdad — between 2003 and 2009, Syria was the transit point for jihadists converging on Iraq to fight the Americans and the Shiites — the Maliki government, with oil money, and anchored in the power of the (Shiite) Dawa party, is throwing a lifeline to the Syrian dictator.
The Shiite appetite in Iraq has grown with the eating. Anti-terrorism laws and the provisions of de-Baathification have been unleashed on the Sunnis, and the forces of order have become instruments of the Maliki government. Thousands languish in prison on spurious charges, and protests have broken out in Sunni cities. The Syrian conflict has added fuel to the fire. If the Sunnis needed proof that the Shiite coalition in the region (comprising Iran, the Iraqi state, the Alawite regime in Damascus and Hezbollah in Lebanon) is hell-bent on robbing them of their historic place in Iraq, their government’s tilt toward Bashar al-Assad provided it.